Monday, March 4, 2013

Re-post from "State of Formation" on Nones and SBNR

This post appeared for 24 hours from March 3-4, 2013, on the State of Formation blogs....

The Nones, the Unaffiliated, the SBNR and Those Who Serve Them

Reverend Tim Miner OUnI

Okay, it is now time to stop referring to the collective numbers that Pew Research is so famous for when we talk about the “nones.”   Yes, on January 9th, the USAToday did run a graphic on the front page that showed that the “religiously unaffiliated” were now the third largest spiritual group in the world at 16 percent.  So the unaffiliated, as a group, now surpass the Hindus and Buddhists and Jews and every other spiritual community except for Christians and Muslims.  Yes, that is a significant number, but what does the number mean?  Like every other spiritual community identified by the Pew numbers, there is such a wide variety of spiritual practices and expressions within the cohort that it is time to look at the individuals that make up that group, and then, as clergy (or aspiring clergy), find ways to support their individual needs.

For over a year now, I’ve been the principal content provider for the virtual community.   “SBNR” stands for the ‘spiritual-but-not-religious.”  We’ve used Facebook as the medium to connect to these widely scattered and varied individual souls.  They come from over 20 countries around the world and they self-identify on all continents.  I’ve had the privilege to get to know many of these participants on an individual level.  It is now time to tell their story—one at a time.

Meeting One SBNR Couple

Let me introduce to you one SBNR couple today.  That couple is Ezekiel and Vanessa and they allowed me to talk about them.  They live near Charlottesville, Virginia and met while in college at the University of Virginia.  I met them during a Yoga retreat along the shores of the James River at an ashram called “Yogaville.”  He is 28 years old and has a Master’s degree in chemical engineering.  She is 32 years old.  Both are currently teachers, and they rent a large plot of land where they raise a few farm animals.  They have just made a down payment on a farm of their own near the rural area on the Virginia and Tennessee boarder.   While they will keep their hands in teaching part-time, they plan to be farmers.  Before I met them, they never heard of the terms of “SBNR,” or “Nones” or any other label we have been using.  They are just being true to themselves.

Unlike most of the participants on the SBNR virtual community, neither come from a “religious background.”  He grew up in the rural Virginia area they are moving back to which is steeped in Protestant Christianity.  His family did not own a farm.  They did allow him to be a spiritual seeker from his youth and to explore his own calling without pressure to conform to one faith or another.  He uses the term “seeker” to describe his path.  Her family, more urban than his, never talked about religion at all that she can remember.  They were at the ashram together for a yoga retreat.  It was obvious during the sessions that they have done yoga for a number of years together.  They chose to meditate with the rest of the ashram’s visitors and staff in the Temple during formal meditations.  Their postures were flawless and if you looked at them during meditation you could see the quiet devotion in their spirituality.  During the meals I had time to ask them about their backgrounds and their spiritual path.  He knew little about Hinduism and never read any of the classic writings associated with that path.  He knew more about Buddhism than any other religion, except for some background in Christianity from his youth.  They were content on their path of quiet spiritual reflections together, and being tied to the animals they nurtured and to the land they were called to work.

What most caught my attention about this couple, and why they are important for you to meet, is that Vanessa is now pregnant with their first child.  At the time of the retreat, she had just finished her first rough trimester of pregnancy.  During the yoga classes her poses were appropriate for a mother-to-be. As I explored their spirituality during our mealtime conversations, I couldn’t help but ask them how they planned to teach spirituality to their child.  At that point, they hadn’t even considered the question yet.   They didn’t know if they could look for a local “spiritual community” that would support them and their child with traditional teachings.  They didn’t know if they were going to just let the child become a seeker if the calling was there.  This question, of how to raise the next generation, puts Ezekiel and Vanessa at an important place for all of us who are interested in the future of human spirituality.  They will let me share with you their entire journey together over the next year.   They, and all their fellow seekers, have a decision to make that could potentially shape the future of human spirituality.

Those Who Serve the SBNR and Seeking

It is significant that I met this couple at Yogaville—a place that honors all the world’s religions.  The ashram was the product of the late Swami Satchidananda in the 1970’s.  He was the guru at the Woodstock Music Festival in the 1960’s and he attracted a wide following of music stars that provided the material resources to allow his teachings to flourish.  His most important teaching was simply that “Truth is One, Paths are Many.”  Ezekiel and Vanessa meditated in the LOTUS which is a giant lotus-shaped temple that has alters dedicated to all the world’s religions including those that “haven’t been revealed yet.”    Swami Satchidananda also helped Rabbi Joseph Gelberman create the first interfaith seminary, The New Seminary, in New York City in the early 1980’s. From that seminary and all the ones that have been created from its graduates, over 4500 “interfaith ministers” have emerged to support seekers and the SBNR community.  

Interfaith Ministers represent a commitment from an evolving clergy that it is possible to spiritually serve all people of all faiths, and those with no faith path at all.  We have reached a point in the United States where over one-third of all weddings are performed for people of different faith paths.  The ceremonies can be a synthesis of different rituals or something unique depending on the desires of the couple.  This is a clergy that believes that interfaith is no longer just a dialogue between the religions, but also an actual attempt to meet the needs of every unique spiritual being that walks the planet.  The goal is to be a living example of “walking the talk of interfaith.”

This is not a new religion.  However, there is a single religious order that can hold everyone and every practice, called the Order of Universal Interfaith (  Besides Interfaith Ministers, the order accepts former clergy who have felt restricted by the scope of spiritual service that traditional paths allow.  There is an annual conference of the best practices and examples of interfaith which serves as an apologetic for the movement.  The conference is called the “BIG I Conference for Inclusive Theology, Spirituality and Consciousness” (  This is only a movement since there is nothing “new” created by any of this.  It is a worldview that accepts diversity in spirituality as a given for all of humanity. 

Many of those who have come together have started to name this mystic place between the formal religions as “interspirituality” which is a term coined by the late Brother Dr. Wayne Teasdale.  Right now, one of the top 10 books on is “The Coming Interspiritual Age” which was co-authored by Rev. Dr. Kurt Johnson and David Ord.  The book is a broad historic overview of the evolution of humans and their spirituality, which leads the reader to look at interspirituality as the next step.

Ezekiel, Vanessa and all Interfaith Ministers represent a growing body of spiritual people that casts aside labels and seeks to see the wide variety of spiritual paths and practices as part of a continuum of human spirituality.  Their story continues to evolve and unfold before our eyes.